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Three tips for better data visualisation

Natasha Bance

This post was created for ‘The Armchair Analyst’ session at Civil Service Live 2022. You can watch Catherine’s ‘Three tips for better data visualisation’ video blog post on YouTube.

We present data to help our audience to learn something. Let’s think about each part of this process separately.

1. Consider audience and user needs

Ask yourself:

  • who will you be presenting this data to?
  • do your audience know much about the subject already?

Think about how much time your audience will have to look at the data and how they will interact with it. For example, will they be looking at it as part of a presentation? Will they be watching the information on television? Or are you sat at their desk with them sharing the information?

Think about your users’ needs. You might not know if your users have any accessibility needs, so presume that they do and present your data in a way that’s accessible to everybody.

2. Tell a memorable story

You want people to remember what you shown them. The information you share could help your users to make decisions. It could help them to understand the world better, or even win an argument with a friend.

You need to tell them a memorable story. Do not assume that giving people lots of numbers in a table will be enough for them to understand what’s happening and why. Engage people. Make sure they understand the context and they get the right headline story.

When telling your story, you have to use the right language. Try not to use acronyms and jargon. If your users aren’t as familiar with the subject as you are, use plain English.

3. Help users understand the story behind the data

Here’s a chart:

It is a line chart with no title and no axis labels.

Let’s add them in.

Claims to Universal Credit

Figure 1: Claims made to Universal Credit each week, Great Britain, 2020

Now we have a line chart showing a large peak in applications towards the end of March 2020. This is followed by a large drop as applications returned to previous levels.

I could leave you to work out for yourself why there was a big increase in Universal Credit claims in March 2020. Or I could help you, and all users, by adding an annotation.

Claims to Universal Credit peaked when the Coronavirus (COVID-19) lockdown began

Figure 2: Claims made to Universal Credit each week, Great Britain, 2020

Source: Universal Credit statistics, 29 April 2013 to 14 April 2022

As before, this line chart shows a sharp increase in the number of applications for Universal Credit in March 2020 followed by a sharp fall. The increase happened at the same time the UK’s COVID-19 lockdown began.

Some people won’t have knowledge of the United Kingdom Social Security benefit landscape. Others will have guessed what happened in March straightaway. But by telling the story directly onto the chart, I have helped my audience to know that the increase in claims was because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Think about these three things when presenting your data. Help your audience to learn something.

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Catherine Hope
Natasha Bance
Catherine Hope is a statistician based in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Catherine leads the team of Digital Performance Analysts working in Newcastle on DWP’s retirement provision services. She is also DWP’s Data Presentation Champion and gets very excited by charts!